- Coins (formerly the Verri collection)
By Ermanno A. Arslan
The collection of coins of the Milan mint, which Banca Intesa has inherited from Banca Commerciale Italiana, was begun by Pietro Verri, one of the most prominent protagonists of Milanese culture in the XVIII century. This is one of the last great historical collections not yet dismembered, or not yet absorbed by some museum.
The formerly Verri collection is therefore a fundamental means of documentation for the knowledge of Milan and Lombardy in a crucial phase of their history, between the Austrian occupation and the Napoleonic age. (The same holds for the Verri family archive entrusted to the "Fondazione Raffaele Mattioli"). Indeed, we are not dealing here with a collection kept as some kind of "Room of Wonders". There is no exasperated search for rare pieces or noble metals – though exceptional items abound; nor can we view it as the result of the erudite passion which brought so many contemporaries to collect coins from classical antiquity. What we find, rather, is a view of the coin as an irreplaceable, often unique document of the economic history of a region.
Verri, an economist, was interested in the continuum of issues throughout the centuries, which he analyzed and organized as a collection. He was a close observer of social phenomena in a chosen region, that of Milan. For him, the author of "La grandezza e decadenza del commercio dello Stato di Milano sino al 1750" (The greatness and decadence of commerce in the State of Milan until 1750), and of "Considerazioni sul commercio dello Stato di Milano" (Some considerations on commerce in the State of Milan), 1763, currency represented what we should like to call a working tool, not different from archival papers. The knowledge of history from concrete documents including coins was in fact an indispensable premise for the reformist work undertaken by Verri, especially in the economic field. He continued this work as a functionary, though not always successfully. This brought him to choose a more historical perspective in his work, which culminated in his "Storia di Milano" (A History of Milan), the first volume of which was published in 1783.
The present composition of the formerly Verri collection indicates that his effort was continued by his family at least for the greater part of the XIX century. The production of the Milanese mint was followed until it was closed down in 1892, and the collection is complete with almost every single issue, including extremely rare documents such as the series of projects for the new currency of the Repubblica Cisalpina. The fundamental core of the collection, however, has remained the one gathered by Pietro Verri himself, and so is its organization, which is rooted in the social life of Milan and is today an indispensable source for an understanding of the economic life of the city for more than a millennium. The history of the Milanese mint is documented by 1043 coins, from the medieval mint which was demolished in 1780 to the new one established under the reign of Empress Theresa of Austria, which remained in operation until 1892. For the most part, the collection is constituted of coins, with the addition of a few medals, or exceptional issues, or tokens, or else monetary weights of particular significance and importance.
From the VIII century to the early XIV century.
Of the first period, from the VIII century to the beginning of the XIV, the collection includes 103 items (invv. from M.V-00001A-L/BI to M.V-00103A-L/BI), almost all of which are very rare, especially those from the earlier centuries (the Longbeard age, the age of Charlemagne, the age of Emperor Otto). We are facing here an embarassment of riches, having to choose among pieces so excellently selected because of their state of preservation, their rarity, the quality of their production. Suffice it to mention the Tremisse of Desiderius, minted for Milan (inv. M.V-00001A-L/BI), the Denarius of Ludovico the Pius with his portrait (inv. M.V-00004A-L/BI), the Denarius of Arduino from Ivrea with E*S (inv. M.V-00047A-L/BI).
From Desiderius to Charlemagne we find a shift from the Longbeard means of exchange, exclusively golden coins, to the Frank one, exclusively silver coins. The formerly Longbeard Northern Italy, for centuries a buffer state between the Byzantine world and Germanic Europe, yet basically connected to the minted Byzantine gold, was forever annexed by Charles to Europe, and became an integral part of it once and for all. Thus a new reformed coin was issued under the reign of Charlemagne, the silver Denarius, and was circulated throughout Europe.
An age began during which the monetary unification of Europe became a real and live event, which can be viewed as a model for the Euro system of nowadays. That unification, however, was to yield to the weakening of the centralized Empire, to the economic growth of the peripheries, to their economic competitiveness, and to their aspiration to a political autonomy.
This development can be understood by studying the monetary history of the Comune (local administration) of Milan, whose silver coin was widely circulated. Milan issued its own golden coin later than other Italian cities. The collection includes a sample of the first issue, the golden "ambrosino" (inv. M.V-00080A-L/BI), one of the three extant exemplars.
The Visconti family (1329-1447)
The complex period of the history of Milan dominated by the Viscontis is documented in the collection by 116 coins (invv. from M.V-00104A-L/BI to M.V-00219A-L/BI). Their policies were very aggressive, and expressed territorial ambitions which extended to the greater part of the Italian peninsula, almost reaching the goal of national unification.
The iconographic aspects of the coins is especially interesting, because they acquired very important meanings in this period. Such is the case of the "whip" of Saint Ambrose, a clear sign of the traditional alliance between religious and secular powers in the city, or the ambers with the buckets, or the knight with his armour.
The unique golden ten florins piece of Gian Galeazzo (inv. M.V-00179A-L/BI) is certainly a medal rather than a coin. Among several very rare coins, the extremely rare Florin of Giovanni Maria Visconti has a particular importance (inv. M.V-00181A-L/BI).
The Sforzas and the Kings of France (1450-1535)
The next period - after the defeat of the Repubblica Ambrosiana and the seizing of power by Francesco Sforza, a "condottiere", on February 25, 1450 - is characterized by the growing importance of portraits on golden coins (invv. from M.V-00220A-L/BI to M.V-00370A-L/BI). Thanks to the presence of exceptional artists in the duchy, an extremely high quality was reached in the drawing and engraving of coins. It is noteworthy that historians should have mentioned the figurative culture brought to Milan by Leonardo, when it came to consider the portrait of Gian Galeazzo Maria Sforza.
For this period too very remarkable items abound, albeit the whole is already severely selected. Among the many pieces worth mentioning, suffice it to recall the Ducat of Francesco I Sforza, the first portrait on a coin in the Renaissance (inv. M.V-00232A-L/BI); the double Ducat of Gian Galeazzo Maria Sforza and Bona of Savoy (inv. M.V-00293A-L/BI),the double Ducat of Gian Galeazzo and Ludovico Maria Sforza (inv. M.V-00296A-L/BI), the projects for a copper Testone for Ludovico il Moro and Beatrice d’Este (inv. M.V-00316A-L/BI); the double Ducat of Ludovico XII (inv. M.V-00319A-L/BI). There are also several non-monetary items or special and extremely rare issues, such as medals or thick testoni.
The Spanish domination (1535-1706)
The next section retraces the history of the Spanish domination until 1706 with 205 coins (invv. from M.V-00371A-L/BI to M.V-00575A-L/BI). At that time the highest point of coinage art was reached, with the work of Leone Leoni. This does not concern Milan only. On the contrary: with the shifting of the world’s economic and financial centers farther and farther from Italy and Lombardy, the functions and the importance of the Milanese mint were more and more lessened.
Nevertheless, one can still view wonderfully preserved items - coins produced by the best artists of the age which are no less remarkable than either the medals of the same period, or several examples of great rarity. Among the latter, we should point out the double golden Escudo of Charles V (inv. M.V-00371A-L/BI), the two splendid golden pieces worth three Doubles (inv. M.V-00473A-L/BI and M.V-00474A-L/BI), the double Ducat coined in 1603 (inv. M.V-00517A-L/BI) and the golden medal for Princess Margaret of Austria (inv. M.V-00518A-L/BI), coined on the occasion of her visit to Milan during her trip to Spain where she was to marry the king. Governor Velasco had built in her honor Porta Romana (the Roman Gate).
The Austrian domination (1706-1796, 1799-1800)
There are 180 coins in the Verri collection which belong to the period of the Austrian domination (invv. from M.V-00576A-L/BI to M.V-00755A-L/BI).
Under Charles VI, the minting of coins was begun by making use of the press (bilanciere); under Maria Theresa there was a reform of the entire issuing system. For this phase too there are unique items – such as the special issue (inv. M.V-00604A-L/BI) – and very rare projects and pieces.
The Napoleonic age (1796-1814) and the XIX century
The collection is especially complete, with 128 coins, when it comes to the Napoleonic age (invv. from M.V-00756A-L/BI to M.V-00883A-L/BI); and finally, 160 coins (invv. from M.V-00884A-L/BI to M.V-01043A-L/BI) testify to the activity of the mint in the 1800’s, until it was closed in 1892. These pieces were carefully selected on the basis of their rarity and degree of preservation (a feature of the entire collection).
The formerly Verri collection, now Banca Intesa, can be easily consulted by scholars specializing in the economic-monetary history of Milan. It also offers a chance for a pleasant rediscovery by educated people, even if they are only interested in history; or for whoever approaches the suggestive world of coins, perhaps for the first time.